Why Do Cats Purr When They Sleep? A Vet Explains

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Cuddling your cat on the couch with a blanket and a book or the television sounds idyllic, doesn’t it? But what if your cat purrs when they sleep? If they’re noisy purrers, you might have to turn the volume up on the television if you stand a chance of hearing what’s happening on your show!

Quick Overview

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Cats are able to purr in their sleep because they sleep very lightly.

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Cats usually purr when they are content and happy, but they can also purr when they are sick or in pain.

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Sudden snoring, which might sound like purring, can be the sign of an illness or other problem.

When your cat is purring noisily and disturbing you, you might find yourself thinking, “Well they can’t purr forever, they’ll fall asleep soon.” Sometimes, though, the purring seems endless, even when your cat is sleeping. Short of buying noise-canceling headphones, there’s not much you can do about your cat’s purring! Let’s find out why cats purr when they sleep.

Also Read: 11 Tips To Train Your Cat To Sleep All Night

What Is Purring?

Purring is caused by vibration of bones and muscles near a cat’s vocal cords during inhalation and exhalation.

Purring is a special vocalization made by cats. The sound originates in their larynx (throat) near their vocal cords and is caused by vibrations of the bones and muscles during inhalation and exhalation.

Purring forms an important part of bonding, communication, and reassurance in domestic cats as well as some other cats in the wild, like cheetahs and cougars. Big cats like lions and tigers can’t purr, but they can roar—a sound that domestic cats can’t make.

Also Read: 7 Common Cat Vocalizations And What They Mean

Why Do Cats Purr When They Sleep?

Humans might snore and some people might even talk in their sleep, but it’s still hard to imagine how cats can purr and sleep at the same time. Here are some of the reasons why:

1. They Don’t Sleep Very Deeply

One reasons cats can purr while sleeping is they tend to sleep fairly lightly.

Humans go through different phases of sleep including the deep sleep phase and the rapid eye movement phase (where we do most of our dreaming). Although it’s likely that cats also have different sleep phases, their sleep is generally much lighter than ours. This means that they can purr, stretch, roll over, and even open their eyes at the slightest noise or movement.

Also Read: Why Does My Cat Sleep On My Head?

2. They’re Self-Soothing

Though cats do purr when they are happy, content, or relaxed, they also purr to self-soothe if they are upset.

Many cat owners assume that cats purr because they are happy, content, or relaxed. However, although cats do purr for many positive reasons, there are also negative reasons for purring.

Cats will purr to reassure themselves when they’re feeling unwell, uncertain, painful, or anxious. Just like babies might need a lullaby or white noise to drift off to sleep, purring can be healing, helping your cat calm themselves enough to join the land of nod.

Also Read: Why Do Cats Sleep So Much

3. They’re Content

Some cats purr while sleeping simply because they feel very safe, cozy, and content.

Purring cats are widely recognized as happy cats, and thankfully that is very often the case. So, if your feline is curled up next to you, purring away while they sleep, it’s likely that they’re feeling safe, content, and loved.

It’s also a sign of affection. Even kittens purr when they sleep, as they snuggle into the mother cat and their littermates with a belly full of milk.

Also Read: Should My Cat Sleep With Me At Night?

4. They’re Feeling Unwell

Never assume purring means your cat is happy and healthy—cats that are feeling sick might also purr.

As we previously mentioned, purring isn’t always a good thing. If your cat is purring while they sleep it could mean that they’re sick. The rest of their behavior might give you a clue about whether there’s something wrong.

If they’re eating well, interacting with you normally, and generally seem happy, they probably are. However, if they’re hiding away, don’t want to be touched, or they’re not sticking to their usual eating, drinking, and toileting routine, there could be something wrong.

Also Read: 8 Most Common Cat Sleeping Positions and What They Really Mean

5. They’re In Pain

Some cats purr when it pain, for instance if they break a bone or suffer another serious injury.

By the same token, if your cat is showing signs of pain as well as purring, it could be that they’re purring because they’re sore. Look out for limping, licking at wounds, pawing at their face, or a hunched posture. These can all be signs of pain.

Also Read: Why Does My Cat Lay On My Chest

6. They’re Anxious

Cats that are feeling stressed or anxious might purr in an attempt to self-soothe.

If your cat seems to be withdrawing, if they’re peeing around the house or pulling their fur out, they might be anxious. Although anxiety doesn’t seem to be a logical reason to purr, the purring can actually reassure your cat and make them feel better.

Also Read: Why Does My Cat Lay And Sleep Between My Legs?

7. They’re Not Purring, They’re Snoring

Snoring while asleep can sometimes sound like purring.

It’s really important not to confuse purring with snoring. Both can be normal, but if your cat suddenly starts making noise when they sleep it could be a sign that something is wrong.

Sudden snoring or noisy breathing can be caused by inflammation or swelling within the nose, mouth, or throat. It could also be an indication of a growth like a polyp or a tumor, an allergy, or a respiratory infection.

If you notice your cat’s purring or snoring while they sleep when they didn’t before, get a vet’s opinion in case there’s an underlying health condition causing it.

Also Read: Mast Cell Tumors In Cats: Symptoms, Diagnosis & Treatment

Why Don’t Cats Sleep Deeply?

Cats are instinctually always alert to potential dangers, so they generally sleep lightly.

As humans, we can sleep soundly in our homes feeling safe and free from threats. After all, our doors are (hopefully!) locked, and we have police on call to deal with any incidents. A cat’s life is very different. Although you might think that a cat’s life is very easy, their instinct tells them they need to be always on guard and aware of any potential threats.

Being on high alert isn’t easy, especially if you want to get some sleep. So, unless a cat feels super safe and secure, they’ll doze in a very light sleep so that they can quickly respond to any predators or threats that might appear.

Also Read: Why Do Cats Knead Their Owners?

In Conclusion

The sound of a happy, purring cat is soothing and enjoyable for most cat owners.

It’s lovely when cats purr because it often means they’re really happy and feel safe. However, don’t ignore any changes in your cat’s behavior, like changes in the frequency of snoring, or purring, because it might be a sign that there’s something wrong. Most importantly, book an appointment with your veterinarian if you have any concerns.

Also Read: When A Cat’s Meow Sounds Strange (Hoarse Voice)

Frequently Asked Questions

Do cats like being touched when sleeping?

You might notice that your cat purrs as they snooze, then as their sleep deepens, they stop purring. If you stroke them at this point, they’ll probably start purring again. This isn’t just because they’re enjoying the fuss though, it’s because you’ve roused them a little from their deep sleep.

They’d probably also start purring if you disturbed them by moving or making a noise. Even though it’s nice to hear them purring, it’s probably a better idea to leave them sleeping undisturbed if you can.

Why do cats like to sleep with their owners?

Many cats love sleeping next to their owners. Not only is your body heat, heartbeat, and rhythmic breathing reassuring, but they also feel safe and protected by you. When cats sleep, they are at their most vulnerable, so if they let their guard down and drop into a deep sleep, it’s because they trust you.

Do cats miss their humans?

Cats are independent, but they still love humans, even when it’s on their terms. If you’re a cat owner and you spend lots of time out of the house, you might notice that they greet you at the driveway or when you walk in the door. They might also try to jump on you as soon as you sit down, or wake you when you’re sleeping because they miss having your attention.

Do cats protect you while you sleep?

Cats often enjoy a trusting relationship where their pet parents. This means that they often relax and drift off to sleep when they're with their human because they feel safe. It reciprocated though, and you might find your cat dozing at the foot of your bed while you sleep, keeping watch for threats.

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About Dr Hannah Godfrey MRCVS

Hannah graduated from the Royal Veterinary College, UK in 2011 and began work straight away at a busy mixed practice. Initially, she treated all species, but as the small animal hospital became busier, she focussed on small animals. She has a passion for soft tissue surgery as well as canine and feline dentistry, having completed additional training in both areas.

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